The Most Important Issue

I’ve seen some political surveys recently that ask respondents to pick the most important issue to them from a predefined list, and I’ve never had any of these lists include what I think is the most important issue facing our country right now. This is probably because it’s hard to condense my issue into a pithy phrase. Generally, I would go for a choice such as “science and technology policy” or “research, innovation, and education,” but items like those almost never appear in the poll options.

We live in a fast-moving world, and I am concerned about the United States’ ability to keep up. Perennial stories crop up in the news of how US students’ test scores are falling in science and math, how high technology is moving to India and China, how other countries are committing increasing resources to clean energy, space stations, or Moon probes. Companies in the US are much more focused on next-quarter profits than they are on research and development. Congressmembers routinely attack the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health for wasting taxpayer money by spending it on basic research. In such a climate, I am worried about whether, in the next decade or two, the US will cede global leadership to other countries. The problem isn’t just money, but also the level of public awareness, understanding, and engagement of the work coming out of places like the NSF and NASA.

This is not just an idealistic policy issue – it’s also an education issue, economic issue, and national security issue. Do we want to create high-paying, rewarding jobs? We can do so by investing in high-tech infrastructure. Do we want American companies to innovate? We need to make sure they have incentives for longer-term R&D. Do we want our transportation systems to be safe from terrorist threats? Then we need intensive research on efficient and sensible ways to identify concealed weapons. Do we want true energy security for the long haul? Then we need to pursue technological solutions for renewable or clean energy sources. Do we want our military to remain effective and safe? Then we need to give our soldiers, sailors, and airmen the latest technologies. Do we want our children to be able to compete in the global marketplace when they grow up and start looking for work? We need to equip them with the best tools we can. And do we want our policymakers to make informed and well-considered decisions about all these issues? Then we need to make sure they are well-educated about science and technology, too!

I want candidates for office to advocate enhanced support for the NSF, NIH, Department of Energy, and NASA. I want them to stand for infrastructure investments. I want them to speak highly of science and engineering scholarship or fellowship programs. I want them to care about basic research. I want them to commit federal dollars to programs that clearly enhance our capabilities and quality of life, but corporations won’t pursue because of their myopic short-term goals. I want them to openly consult the smartest people they can find when considering these issues.

That’s what I think is the most important issue in America. Science and technology policy. Science and math education. High-tech infrastructure. Secure energy. The value of intelligence and critical thinking. In short: the future.

So it is very disturbing to me that one of the two major American political parties appears to be…well, I can’t think of any better way to put it than anti-intelligence. Let me show an example of what I mean. I recently received this item:

All but the scare quotes

It’s a direct-mail attack ad on Elizabeth Warren, senatorial candidate in Massaschusetts, put out by Crossroads GPS. First of all, this is a great example of stupidity in Karl Rove’s organization, as I do not live in Massachusetts and therefore can’t vote in that election – but that’s really a side issue. What I have a real problem with is the ad’s use of the phrase “Professor Elizabeth Warren.” Several features of this ad convince me that the super PAC intended the epithet “professor” as a negative modifier. For example, when written as a person’s title, the usual and accepted usage would have been “Prof.” This ad always writes the term out as “professor.” But, more telling, most of the mentions of Warren’s name have the term attached. The word is something the attack-ad writers clearly want us to associate with her, and attack-ad writers wouldn’t want readers associating positive things with their opponents.

I conclude that this right-wing group thinks that calling someone a professor is a negative thing – an insult. Worse, though, Rove’s super PAC isn’t staffed by idiots: they pick wording that is calculated to have a specific effect on readers. They know that readers will interpret being a professor as a bad thing, when it appears written this way.

This is what really incenses me about the ad, and is one of my biggest issues with the tenor of our current national discourse. Why the heck should telling someone that they have lots of knowledge, and that they work to pass that knowledge onto others, be an insult? And why would we want to belittle that person for those things in the first place?

I have to think that a group that could put out such an ad simply does not value intelligence; this makes them antithetical to my own values. I happen to have spent nearly a decade in colleges and universities. One of them was even – gasp – a liberal arts college and the other was – even more gasps – in the Ivy League. I came out after all that time with a doctorate. So I must be exactly the sort of person that Crossroads GPS would hate. I have highly specialized knowledge: the kind of knowledge without which your GPS devices don’t work, you can’t use Google Maps, you have no idea what the weather will be like tomorrow, Space Shuttles don’t fly, satellites don’t get launched to give you TV, the military can’t communicate or gather intelligence, and we never learn anything about other planets except that they are bright dots in the sky. Aren’t I just terrible?!

Of the two major political parties, one is setting itself up to be the party that derides expertise and knowledge. The party that ignores scientific results when those results get in the way of pipe-dream ideologies. The party of blind Christian creationism. The party that eagerly forgets history when our own past contradicts its views. The party that prefers to base social policies on political soundbites instead of medical studies. The party that’s looking for people who will “stand up to the experts.”

Well, I intend to vote for a party that’s more likely to stand up to the ignorant.

I hope many more Americans will, too.

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